The Sound and the Fury

May 6, 2019

It’s Dax-a-rific


Musician Danielle Dax is celebrated with a reissue of Dark Adapted Eye

In the days before people had blogs, they put together fanzines — Xeroxed publications painstakingly put together with text you banged out on a typewriter (if you wanted to look more professional; others simply wrote out copy by hand), and photos you clipped from a magazine — to share their obsessions.

I did one on Kate Bush (“For the Love of Kate”). I quickly began exchanging letters with other Kate fans who wrote in for a copy, which sometimes led to exchanging compilation tapes. One day such a tape arrived with a song called “The Wheeled Wagon,” and that’s how I discovered Danielle Dax.

Danielle Dax is a fearless UK musician who started out in a very experimental group called the Lemon Kittens. In 1983, she released her first solo album, Pop Eyes, on which she wrote and sang all the songs, played all the instruments, produced, and created the disturbing cover art (a grotesque face collage, made from pictures in medical journals). Now, that’s a solo album!

The music was minimalist, the lyrics cryptic. The opening track, “Bed Caves,” has a sinuous Indian flavor, and three spare lines of lyrics: “Today not the same as before/Starting with a clean slate/Promises of new rewards.” The clattering “Wheeled Wagon” is on Pop Eyes, and I still have no idea what it’s about.

She brought in David Knight to work on her subsequent records (Karl Blake continuing to make guest appearances), filling out the sound. On 1984’s Jesus Egg That Wept, she uses a slowed-down sample of Doctor Ross’s blues track “Juke Box Boogie” as a bed for a sinister depiction of racism. The rhythmic “Hammerheads” looks at another dark aspect of human nature; those who make it a point to be unpleasant to others for no other reason than that they can.

Singles and the album Inky Bloaters (1987) followed. Self-sufficiency was the watchword. In addition to producing herself, Dax set up a record label to release her work. “It’s just that there was no one to do it, so I did it,” she told me in 1990. “It was just a step away from doing at home in Karl’s bedroom. It didn’t seem like such a big deal. It
never really has.”

Her records enjoyed some success on the alternative charts in the UK, and she was generally described as a “cult act,” somewhat to her dismay. “I always thought my stuff was really commercial, even the early stuff, because I was so naïve and my tastes are so weird anyway, a lot of the time,” she said. “I don’t have this big art trip where I want to be some obscurest playing for 200 people forever. I think that’s pointless. It is possible to do things which are mainstream but with integrity.”

In 1988, she seemingly got a break, signing with Sire Records in the U.S. To introduce her to American audiences, a compilation called Dark Adapted Eye was released, 12 tracks on the vinyl album, 19 on the CD and cassette. It was basically an expanded version of Inky Bloaters, with a couple of single sides and two tracks from Jesus Egg.

After being out of print for years, it was apparently reissued in 2008 on a label called Noble Rot. I missed that iteration, but it’s just been reissued on CD again, in a revamped format, by Rubellan Remasters. This edition has 15 tracks from the original version, drops the Jesus Egg tracks, but adds four new bonus tracks, some making their CD debut.

It’s not easy to describe the music, as there’s no one obvious signifier. You couldn’t call it “alternative rock,” because while it may be alternative, there are far more influences than just “rock” going on here. The glorious “Flashback” is irresistibly Bolan-esque, in addition to being another ode to self-sufficiency (“Next minute you’re in there fighting/The stakes are high/Never won any major battles/but I always try”). Sampling reveals further influences; the intro of Captain Beefheart’s “Frying Pan” provides the backdrop for Dax’s “Yummer Yummer Man.” Then there are a couple of country and western stompers; “Inky Bloaters” (sneaky poltergeists) and “Bad Miss ‘M’” (a diatribe about then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher).

Political themes turn up repeatedly in Dax’s work, though not necessarily explicitly (it isn’t obvious that “Bad Miss ‘M’” is about Thatcher). Religion is another target, addressed in “Big Hollow Man,” which Dax describes as being about “The corruption of religion, and the abuse and elimination of complete cultures by religion. I find there’s so much hypocrisy. Religion and politics are always used by people to gain power, and I find it interesting. I find the abuse of power and the corruption of power fascinating.” The song’s protagonist offers salvation, but the devastated souls who follow him walk away with nothing. Dax’s voice soars on the chorus, and drops down to a stern lower register in the verses.

One of my favorite Dax tracks is “Sleep Has No Property,” a song that brings its subject — insomnia — to vivid life. A series of looped sounds builds up, one upon the other, replicating that infernal racket and rattling that goes on inside your head when your thoughts keep whizzing around as you’re trying fall sleep. Dax’s vocal is set to another Indian snake charmer melody, and there’s a positively blistering, squalling guitar solo that courses through the song’s final two minutes. It used to startle people when I played it on tape deck while walking down the street.

The album also has newer single tracks that hadn’t appeared on Inky Bloaters. “Cat House” is Dax’s rock ‘n’ roll updating of blues songs that filled their lyrics with fun sexual innuendos (“Gonna polish up your chrome and shine your treasure”). Though Dax told me she thought the video was “crap” (she wanted to do something more interesting), it does give a sense of her visual appeal. Earlier in her career, Dax had sometimes been tagged as “goth,” more for her looks, than the music’s sound; in “Cat House” she’s a swinging Sixties go-go dancer, with a bouffant and form fitting dress (of her own design). I think it’s rollicking good fun.

“White Knuckle Ride” was the other recent single at the time. The title is a play on words; Dax had seen the phrase in an ad for a roller coaster, and it’s also a euphemism for masturbation. It’s a short sharp shock of a song, directly linking sex and violence, inspired by such heinous acts as the 1987 Hungerford massacre in the UK, as well as Charles Manson’s exploits (the song’s protagonist is “Charlie” and there’s a Manson soundbite dropped in at the end).

Of the bonus tracks, “Cold Sweat” is the standout; no, not a cover of the James Brown song, but a dance club track that’ll help you trip the light fantastic.

Dax returned with a new album, Blast the Human Flower, in 1990. But it wasn’t the breakthrough she hoped for, and she parted ways with Sire, perhaps best summing up the situation in the title of her 1995 compilation: Comatose-Non-Reaction: The Thwarted Pop Career of Danielle Dax. But if you look around online, you’ll find more than a few folks paying homage to her. And reissues like this one also help keep interest in her work alive. Her music may have been overlooked. But us diehard fans will make sure it’s
not forgotten.


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